My (Ahona’s) earliest memories of the supernatural blend with memories of hot rice, white steam like spirits rising from my plate, the sounds of shakha-pola (bangles) on Dida’s hand clamouring as she approached with a ladle full of dal and the words from Dadu’s stories taking on strange shapes and colours, as the ghosts stirred in my imagination, and the rice-balls shifted from the plate to the mouth in wide-eyed wonder. It was Dadu who first kindled my love for horror, spinning tale after tale of shuddering malevolence, for the elongated duration of my lunch hour, as I swallowed, with exaggerated slowness, the morsels on my plate; it was he who bought me my first collections of ghost stories from the boimela (book fair). The memories of my childhood are inextricably bound with the charm and intrigue of horror stories and dadu’s voice looming over the table carrying them to me over dining rituals after school.
Ghost stories, myths and rumours, well-meaning rituals and superstitions, proliferate South Asian childhoods and experiences of growing up, as elaborated by Rajarshi Bhattarcharya in his essay “Spirits and Possessions”.[i] The hint of the spectre haunts dining room traditions, bedtime stories or playtime conversations, sneaking into our childhood pastimes and games, seeing phantoms in Boo Radleys and social outcasts and making ghosts that don’t grow up with us. Hoping to open a pathway into the discourse of ghosts and haunting in Bangla, this is an attempt to recollect, renarrativise and record from literature, culture and media, the ghosts of childhoods past.
Local ritual practices, folk narratives, and cultural sayings all consider ghosts to be important actors disrupting the boundary between the mortal and immortal realms. They have archetypal characteristics of appearance, food habits, behaviour that correspond to local cultural notions about caste, gender and religion, thus making them a mirror of their mortal counterparts. At the same time, their features are exaggerated and caricatured, and thus they could be playful and humorous representations of their living counterparts. During the nineteenth century in British India, these narratives and traditions were documented and anthologized, as a part of ethnographic activities of the British. Consequently, the ghost characters were seen to be archetypes furnishing important information about the mind of the people. During the same time, as folktales were narrativized in the form of short stories, through the efforts of nationalist folklorists, these archetypes shed their guise of being mere ethnographic facts, and entered into relationships and interactions of affect with other characters. Still later, literature responding to colonial modernity moulded these archetypes into new genres and narrative traditions, and imbued them with different meanings and objectives. This article will chronicle the pre-independence and postcolonial (after)lives of some of these intriguing paranormal beings who keep on appearing and reappearing in fascinating new avatars in folklore and cultural imagination, in the modern short story and the novel, in illustrations and contemporary films, that solidify their status as cultural icons.
Bengali Ghosts and their Types
The discipline of anthropology in the late nineteenth century was concerned with gathering statistical views of Indian society, stratified studies of people, their habits, their customs, their social systems. As a part of this anthropological modality of knowledge gathering, William Crooke, then an administrator in British India, and a member of the council of British Folklore Society, published his studies in The Popular Religion and Folklore of Northern India (1896). In a chapter titled “The Worship of the Malevolent Dead” he first explicates a theory of dreams and separable souls, before proceeding to describe curious characteristics and features of various “bhut”-s. He talks about the food of ghosts, their sitting postures, the various challenges they have to undertake, and the common reasons why they haunt others. Following this he creates an extensive classification of ghosts based on their physical features, places of dwelling, intensity of haunting and the regional origins of their folkloric formulations. His studies show that caste as a category of social stratification continues to operate in the paranormal world, lending different characteristics and habits to ghosts from different castes. In this formulation, the Brahmadaitya occupies the highest position in the paranormal hierarchy of Bengal, while “the ordinary Bhût” is a member of the Kshatriya, Vaisya, or Sûdra class.”[ii] He then builds a whole taxonomy of Bengali ghosts, culling from local folklore and ritual practices to build an “ethnography of ghosts.”
Ethnographic writing was not the only modality in which the Bengali ghost taxonomy made its appearance in the late nineteenth century. Lal Behari Dey, a missionary and minister in the Free Church of Scotland, published a novelistic narrative about life in a Bengali village Govinda Samanta in 1974, which went on to win an award of prize money Rs 500 offered by the illustrated Bengali zamindar, Baboo Joy Kissen Mookerjea of Uttarpara, for the best novel, written either in Bengali or in English, illustrating the “Social and Domestic Life of the Rural Population and Working Classes of Bengal”. Prefacing his book as “an authentic representation of household life in a Bengali Raiyat,” Dey dedicates one chapter to “The Village Ghost” and the exorcism of a woman possessed by a ghost. Here he talks about the the mischievous Mamdo, or the Muslim ghost and the five “classes” of Hindu ghosts that haunt the villages of Bengal:
The first and most honourable class of ghosts are those which pass by the name of Brahmadaityas, or the spirits of departed Brahmans. They generally take up their abode in the branches of the gayaasvatha (Ficus Cordifolia), the most sacred species of the Ficus Religiosa, and also in the branches of the holy sriphal (AEgle Marmelos). Unlike other ghosts, they do not eat all sorts of food, but only those which are considered religiously clean. They never appear, like other ghosts, to frighten men,such an object being beneath their dignity. They are for the most part inoffensive, never doing harm to benighted travellers, nor entering into the bodies of living men or women ; but should their dignity be contemned, or their sanctum sanctorum be invaded or desecrated, their rage knows no bounds, and the neck of the offender is ruthlessly wrung and broken — a species of vengeance to which they are somewhat partial. Hence a Hindu will hardly ever climb up the Ficus cordifolia except in dire necessity; and if Brahmans must often climb the AEgle Marmelos for obtaining the sacred trefoil so largely used in Brahmanical worship, they do it only after offering prayers to the gods in general, and to the Brahmadaitya in particular who may have taken up his abode in the tree to be climbed.[iii]
About the other ghosts of Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Sudras, Dey says they are tall as palmyra trees, very lanky and black. They inhabit different trees, except the ones that the Brahmadaitya frequents, and they haunt travellers and passers-by. Women are especially susceptible to being possessed by these ghosts. They stay in dirty places, and are fond of fish. Even among the paranormal world, however, gender has a special significance, as Dey speaks of the petni and the Shankchunni separately:
Of the petnis not much is known, except that they are terribly dirty — the stench of their bodies when near producing violent nausea in human beings; that they are very lascivious, trying to waylay benighted passengers for the gratification of their lusts ; and that intercourse with them is sure to end in the destruction of both the body and of the soul. Shankchunnis, so called, in the opinion of some demonologists, because they put on clothes as white as sanklia (conch-shell), and, in that of others, because they are fond of breaking conch-shells to pieces, are female ghosts, not so filthy as petnis, but equally dangerous. They usually stand at the dead of night at the foot of trees, and look like sheets of cloth as white as any fuller can make them.[iv]
Dey might not have known a great deal about Petnis, but they have always existed in folklore and collective consciousness of Bengalis. The most famous Petni story is set in a village, when a man with a transferable job outside Bengal, gets a chance to come back home to his village. Even as all his loved ones welcome him after so many days, the man feels there is something off, but cannot quite place a finger on it. During lunch, as he asks for a slice of lemon to go with his rice, his wife suddenly reaches her gigantic hand outside the window to pluck a lemon from the tree. Seeing this, the man faints. When he regains consciousness in the morning and is nursed to health by his neighbours, they inform him that everyone in his family has died in a cholera epidemic and his wife is now a petni. Projitkumar Mukhopadhyay in his article “Mahamarir Bhut” speaks of the origins of this story in 1880, when the Dewan of Krishnagar, Kartikeyochandra Ray first heard this story. Since then, different versions of this story have existed in Bangla oral and written literature, as an allegory for the repeated famines that have plagued Bengal across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Some of them have adopted a caste angle, by making the man a Brahmin, who because of his caste supremacy is not harmed by the spirits. Later folklorists like Surendramohan Bhattacharya and Sukumar Sen have mentioned they have heard a version of this story which goes by the name “Gadkhalir Haat”.[v]
I come back to Dey, after this brief interlude about the petni and her infamously elongated arms. Dey’s typography of ghosts ends with the most deadly ghosts of all — the skandhakata, “so called from the circumstance that their heads have been cut off from above their shoulders. These headless ghosts are probably the most terrible of the whole set, as they have never been known to spare any human being with whom they have come in contact. They generally dwell in low moist lands, outside a village, in bogs and fens, and go about in the dark, rolling on the ground, with their huge arms stretched out.”[vi] This elaborate account of terrible spirits is, however, not devoid of a touch of humour, as he speaks of a circumstance where a peasant or a lone traveller, when attacked by two ghosts at the same time, is bound to escape unscatched because the ghosts would start quarrelling with each other. Although, for safety’s sake, one must always carry a metal rod, for ghosts are quite afraid of metals.
As a natural follow-up to this novelistic narration about Bengali ghosts, he published a series of short ghost stories in his Folktales of Bengal (1883).[vii] The short story format allowed him to mould the local folktale narrative in a literary form focused on the particular behavioural patterns of each ghost, without treating it as a source of anthropological investigation or data to be quantified. However, Dey’s intended audience was European folklorists as he writes in his preface that he was familiar with the fairy tale collections of the Brothers Grimms, Dasent, Arnason and Campbell and would like to add his contribution to this international platform of “folk-lore and comparative mythology”. Comparative mythology enables Dey to not just position Bengali ghosts in a parallel platform with European lore monsters such as the vampire, banshee or poltergeist, but also concentrate on the how characters such as the Brahmadaitya, Shankchunni, the Rakshas and others create a supernatural world, that is constantly shaping and influencing the natural order. Moreover, their associations with humans often align with existing caste and gender prescriptions of society, so that even the disturbance caused by the haunting occurs to uphold the social hierarchies. For example, in “The Story of a Brahmadaitya”, the central point is the relationship between a Brahman and a Brahmadaitya.
Once, a poor Brahman, desperate to be rescued from utter poverty and helplessness, accepts a challenge by the Lord of the land to bring back a cut branch from a famed haunted tree. The Lord offers him a hundred bighas of rent-free land in return. On reaching the haunted tree however, he starts shivering in fright. Noticing his plight, the Brahmadaitya, who lived in a nearby bel tree recognizes the man to be a Brahman and offers to help him. The other ghosts haunting the banyan tree all do his bidding, and so they not only refrain from attacking the Brahman, but also hand him the branch of the tree that he was planning to cut. This repeats itself a couple of times, as the Brahman keeps asking favours of the Brahmadaitya, who in turn keeps commanding the other ghosts to follow his orders. First, they help him reap the paddy harvests from all of his hundred bighas of land; then they get him an enormous amount of provisions to feed a thousand other Brahman villagers. At the end of the story, the Brahmadaitya informs him that by befriending and helping the Brahman he had served his penance and hence the puṣpaka chariot had come for him to take him to heaven. The story ends on a happy and fulfilling note where both the Brahman and the Brahmadaitya benefit a great deal from this mutual association — one gains prosperity and the other eternal salvation from his undead ghostly experience.
The Bengali horror pantheon is extended by Dakshinaranjan Mitra Majumdar, whose renowned Thakurmar Jhuli (1906) features other kinds of monsters called Rakshos-es and Khokshos- es. They are hideous in appearance, but could be shapeshifters.[viii] Very often in Thakurmar Jhuli, a Rakshosi takes the form of a human and tricks the king or the prince. Mitra Majumdar gives a nasal tone to the Rakshos-Khokshos speech, a feature that will come to represent standard ghost-speech in Bangla. Though not spirits of human beings, these beasts too belong to an antiquated age, where the mortal, the immortal, and the undead seamlessly interact with each other.
Dey’s ghosts and Mitra-Majumdar’s demons set a standard for how future iterations of spirits and monsters in Bengali will be described. The 1912 edition of Folktales of Bengal was illustrated by Warwick Goble, the British illustrator of children’s magazines and books. Influenced by Japanese water-colour techniques, he depicted ghosts as smoky levitating figures, who resemble humans in gestures and expressions. Thus, as per this early visual representation, ghosts, despite their malicious natures, mirror human beings, reminiscent of their own past. Even as they live on the margins of human colonies, they carry the memories of human social rules such as caste and gender prescriptions, and enforce them on their own society. However, as the Brahmadaitya story shows, they are themselves tormented by their undead existence and are always looking for ways to salvage their spirits. In Thakurmar Jhuli, woodcut illustrations by Mitra-Majumdar himself show Rakshases to be physically distorted, humongous creatures, bereft of the calm and peace that the human characters are portrayed with.
Finally, the horror pantheon would remain incomplete if one does not mention the vampire or pishach Betal. Originally appearing as a series of 25 tales in 12th Book of the Kathasaritsagara , a work in Sanskrit compiled in the 11th century by Somadeva, they narrate the story of King Vikramadaitya who has to capture a celestial spirit named Vetaal hanging upside down from a tree. Vetaal, or Baital’s description has become quite conventional in popular culture —
Its eyes, which were wide open, were of a greenish-brown, and never twinkled; its hair also was brown, and brown was its face—three several shades which, notwithstanding, approached one another in an unpleasant way, as in an over-dried cocoa-nut. Its body was thin and ribbed like a skeleton or a bamboo framework, and as it held on to a bough, like a flying fox, by the toe-tips, its drawn muscles stood out as if they were ropes of coir. Blood it appeared to have none, or there would have been a decided determination of that curious juice to the head; and as the Raja handled its skin, it felt icy cold and clammy as might a snake. The only sign of life was the whisking of a ragged little tail much resembling a goat’s.[ix]
However, the haunting here is not about the fear or the spook, but rather cerebral. It being established that Vikram is a mighty king, unmatched in strength and courage, Vetaal’s role is that of a verbal tormentor. Each time the king goes to him, the spirit tells him a story ending in a riddle. The catch is that Vikrama has to give a wrong answer to the riddle, otherwise the spirit will escape and return to the tree. Each of Vetal’s stories constitute the 24 tales in the series, with the frame narrative itself being the 25th. Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar translated the stories into Bangla, and published them from his own Sanskrit Press in 1857.[x] There have been multiple translations and adaptations of these stories into several formats and media, making it a part of an enduring South Asian horror legacy.
The objective of the horror story is to invoke a sense of dread, to inspire disgust or revulsion in its readers, to haunt and horrify. It is this “expectation of the emotion”[xi], as Dr. Anurima Chanda calls it, that a work of horror is supposed to produce: “A combination of fear and repulsion”, Noël Carroll observes.[xii] The English Gothic novel, the German Schauer-roman (shudder novel), the French Roman noir (thriller) follows through on this principle. Shrouded in myth and mystery, the one who haunts locates at a distance from the ones being haunted (the human protagonist and the reader on either side of the text) occasionally making their presence felt through the anticipation of violence – creaking doors, rattling windows, secrets and cobwebs, flickering lights and animated furnitures, disappearances and shadowy presences. The instinct to spook is characteristic of the genre of horror fiction.
However, what happens when the horror form is not horrifying? When the ghost story discards this primary formal feature? When the ghost is stripped of their power to terrify? When it humours instead of haunting, helps instead of harming? What of the politics behind such a choice? The authorial intentions behind transgressing the tenets of horror fiction? What is a ghost when rendered un-ghost-like?
Merging the elements of humour and horror, the genre of horror comedy is “predicated upon either getting us to laugh where we might ordinarily scream, or to scream where we might typically laugh, or to alternate between laughing and screaming”, Carroll notes.[xiii] While popular Hollywood blockbusters such as Beetlejuice, Gremlins, Ghostbusters and The Addams Family comprise the list of films that correlate with this category, Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, stageparodies of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (suggestively “Frank-in-Steam and Franken-stitch, the Needle Prometheus”), Saki’s “The Open Window” and Oscar Wilde’s “The Canterbury Ghost” are some of the prominent examples Carroll cites, while cataloguing the emergence of the genre in Western literature. Writing about the ghosts in Ranjit Lal’s Faces in the Water (2010) and Payal Dhar’s There’s a Ghost in My PC (2012) Chanda makes a case for these two pre-teen Indian-English novels observing how:
Instead of disgust, they evoke a state of kinship. Instead of repulsion, they evoke friendship. Instead of fear, they evoke laughter. In a strange way, they allow children to sneak a peek into the society’s decomposing centre without really experiencing the full horrors of the situation.[xiv]
The same could be said about some of the genial ghosts in Bengali folklore, films and fiction. Upendrakishor Roychowdhuri’s Galpamala features many such benevolent, silly, foolish and even cowardly ghosts. In Knujo ar Bhoot (The Hunchback and the Ghosts) the musical ghosts cure the good hunchback for singing in tune to their music and adding more lines to their lyrics while adding to the wicked one’s hunched back for breaking their rhythm. Healing one, cursing another. The cowardly ghosts in Zola ar Saat Bhoot (The Fisherman and the Seven Ghosts) afraid of being swallowed whole,bestow gifts to appease the fisherman singing “ekta khabo duto khabo saat beta kei chibiye khabo” under their tree. While the Zola sitting with a plateful of his favourite sweetmeats, seven pieces of pithe, singabout devouring these, the ghosts misconstrue his lyrics for themselves thereby serving his every whim. Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1915) part of the same collection in Galpamala, is another successful contribution to the genre in Bengali literature with Satyajit Ray’s film adaptation of the same (in 1969) paving the way for Bengali horror comedy in films. Banchharamer Bagan (1980) came next with contemporary examples such as Bhooter Bhobishyot (2012), Jekhane Bhooter Bhoy (2012) and Goynar Baksho (2013) following soon after.
In his film treatment of Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1969), Satyajit Ray depicts four classes (shreni) of ghosts reminiscent of a similar classification of village ghosts by Lal Behari Dey (as referenced above) in his novel Govinda Samanta (1974). According to his sketches in Kheror Khata these were: 1. Raja-Badshah (Royalty) 2. Chasha-Bhusho (Peasantry) 3. Saheb (Sahib/Colonizers) 4. Narugopal/Baniya (Tradesmen), with several subcategories to each type, mirroring the various echelons of society. In this classification, elements from both rural (like the spirits of farmers, tribals, minstrels, gatekeepers, hoodlums: Saontal, Baul, Daroan, Lathiyal) and urban life (like the ghosts of merchants, priests, headmasters, kings and colonisers including Hastings, Clive, Cornwallis and Indigo Collectors), assemble to form these distinct classes ruled by Bhoot er Raja or the King of Ghosts (surmised to be a parody of the feudal landlords)5. The only other distinguishing feature between the native and foreign ghosts was the colour of their skin and attire, the colonisers appearing in layers of white and colonials in black.
As Goopy and Bagha perform a duet, their music draws out strange pairs of lights amidst the forest’s darkness revealing “dark grotesque, two-legged forms with long, pointed ears and sharp, pointed teeth”. Although skeletal and scary with strange lights for eyes, Ray notes how despite their demonic appearance their “teeth are formed in the broadest of grins, and somehow these demon-forms are not so terrifying.”[xv] Sourav Kumar Nag in “Decolonising the Eerie: Satyajit’s Bhooter Raja (the King of Ghosts) in Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1969)” observes how this marks a significant departure from western gothic tradition – our ghosts are closer to the idea of the human spirit, with both good and evil potential and shades in between as opposed to the Western idea of ghosts, as an incarnation of evil.
In British literature, the depiction of the ghosts is mere concretization of the Evil-the biblical account of Satanism…If the Gothic was a typical Western product borne out of colonial anxieties, the ghost stories written in colonial Bengal sprouted from the deep suppressed longing for liberty and the fear of the colonial suffering.[xvi]
Instead of terrorizing, enamored by the discordant duet of Goopy and Bagha, these friendly ghosts break into a dramatic, spell-binding sequence, dancing to the rhythms of the music. The protagonists watch amazed and excited as “(the ghosts) clap their hands – some turn cartwheels, some form themselves into pairs and dance almost like Western couples; others have feathers which suggest Indian classical patterns with ornaments on their hands and limbs.” In the spectral dance (Bhoot-er Nach) scenes as planned out by Ray in Kheror Khata and eventually executed in the film, each category of ghosts can be seen with not only typical, rank-appropriate and culturally-specific costumes but also with distinct musical accoutrements: 1. Mridanga 2. Khanjira 3. Ghattam and 4. Muhr Shringa.
Here too, the typology and the behaviour of various paranormal characters under each type hints at an intentional parody of social behaviours around class-caste ranks as if the marginalisation in life extends also beyond death. “Unlike the Western devils and ghosts occupying large palaces and abandoned luxuries, the ghosts in Bengal‟s culture represent the marginalised.” (Nag 44) Interestingly, one doesn’t recall any female ghosts in this ghastly typology, a possible allusion to the continuation of patriarchal injunctions even in death, particularly with regards to women in both corporeal and other worlds being sheltered from public spaces or gaze.
The ghost merges the boundaries between stories and sociology, fiction and social reality with experiences seemingly real and yet supposed to be made-up. Ray’s ghosts as a metaphor for class consciousness and cultural hauntings “reveal how the conception of the afterlife often comes across as a translation of life in the living world and society of Bengal.”[xvii] When Goopy and Bagha entered the forest, the woods had seemed dark and deep yet after after receiving the three magic boons of talent, nourishment and translocation from Bhoot’er Raja (the King of Ghosts) as the phantoms disappear, the protagonists sense “the sky (…) getting lighter.” (Ray 55) The supernatural episode served as an interlude, a turning point that fractured the expected flow of events through magical intervention thereby altering the course of the narrative already in motion and changing the fate of the human lives in it:
A ghost story is usually about an interruption. One reality interrupts another, one musical performance disturbs another already in play. Two worlds, two times, bump into one another, sometimes antagonistically, sometimes collaboratively. In some texts, a struggle takes place as two different temporalities vie for control of the same building or person; in others, the two worlds merge and overlap harmoniously, content to mirror one another without intruding to the point of primacy.xviii]
The forest figures as the in-between space where the physical and spirit worlds mert and magically merge together. The ghost world functions as an ally to the human world of Goopy and Bagha in Ray’s imagination. Empowered by the gifts from the King of Ghosts, the heroes set out on an adventure to restore good over evil. “Ghosts come to alter the status quo, and having done so, they go.”[xix]
The 19th century was marked by deaths due to natural calamities such as famines and epidemics (cholera, malaria, plague). The undercurrents of death, disease, and destitution seeped into the art and cultural imagination of Bengal. Evidently, the sketches of Sukumar and Satyajit Ray, exhibit a clear dichotomy between the living and dead. While the living characters from Sandesh or the drafts of Goopy Bagha (in its graphic conceptualisation in Kheror Khata by Ray) demonstrate healthy, fit and even plump physique, in death they appear to be their opposites – frail, thin, angular, bony, skeletal and impoverished. Almost as if the figure of the dead acted as negatives to their living selves! A possible influence, also perhaps was, the trend of spirit photography around the same time, that was believed to capture the bare outlines of dematerialised humanoid forms and paranormal presences. The dichotomy between the spirit world and the human plane is further brought out by the reversal of colours as of negatives and photographs, alternating between monochromatic and polychromatic elements! While the ghosts were imagined in tones of black and white, the living characters in Kheror Khata were brought to life with a plethora of colours in costume and jewellery design. The illustration of the Pantyo Bhut er Jyanto Chana (ghost mother and child) featured with the poem Bhuture Khela (Ghastly Games) by Sukumar Rayfor instance, is assumed to be a commentary on the havoc wreaked by the Great Bengal Famine during World War II.[xx] Satyajit Ray’s sketches bear a stunning resemblance to the stylisation of shriveled, starving, skeletal outlines adopted by his father for this sketch in Abol Tabol.
The ghost is not simply a dead or a missing person, but a social figure, and investigating it can lead to that dense site where history and subjectivity make social life. The ghost or the apparition is one form by which something lost, or barely visible, or seemingly not there to our supposedly well-trained eyes, makes itself known or apparent to us, in its own way, of course.[xxi]
The philosophy behind the authorial intentions to break the mould of conventional horror fiction beset with stereotypes of the evil, menacing supernatural figure, can perhaps be traced in the lines of Bhoy Peona “Prey for me” another poem from Sukumar Ray’s oeuvre, translated by Satyajit Ray, that reflects the pulse of horror comedies from Bengal:
Think I’m going to bite you?/ Silly notion! Don’t you know/ I have no strength to fight you?/ I know the horns upon my head/Must seem a trifle shocking./But butting pains my head, and so/ They’re seldom used for knocking.[xxii]
The framework of horror which is at times a mirror, and at other a foil to the mortal society, is susceptible to be used as a tool for social satire. In “Bhushundir Maathe” by Parashuram (Rajsekhar Basu), the ghosts carry on with their problems, squabbles, and brawls in the afterlife. So much so that they reproduce caste relations, or at least gendered caste relations and ritual practices in the afterlife. But the illustrations show that their features are exaggerated. The illustrations of this story, done by Jatindrakumar Sen, are, arguably, deeply embedded in collective cultural memory, and are even used in the wikipedia page of Ghosts in Bengali culture.
The story narrates the humorous plight of a Brahman, who thinks he has escaped the clutches of his overbearing wife in death. As a Brahmadaitya he takes shelter in bhusundir maath, an abandoned marshland at the edge of human habitation in his village. He is flattered by the attention bestowed upon him by the other female ghosts in that locale, but among them he takes a fancy to the dakini who lives in a dilapidated hut in the same marshland. Her white cotton saree without borders is a mark of her Brahmin widowhood and hence she is a perfect fit for Shibu’s attraction. They gesture flirtatiously from a distance, but when he actually meets her, he discovers that it is in fact his own wife from the mortal world, while the rest of the female ghosts also happen to be his wives from previous births. The story ends in wild confusion as wives and husbands from previous births fight over each other in this paranormal realm. The paranormal in the story is the narrative frame by which this raging confusion becomes possible. Deceased conjugal partners come back to lay their claim on their spouses in a way that would not have been possible in a “living” universe. Here, there are no obligations of social politeness to suppress the disputes arising out of volatile marriage. As a result, this paranormal world is chaotic and topsy-turvy, where multiple husbands and wives of the protagonist couple from previous births meet each other and relive their mortal conflicts.
But, at the heart of this conjugal tussle, is the question of caste.Shibu’s non-romantic associations in the ghostly realm are with the male ghosts around him. The Sooty Spirit from Bihar— a dark, lanky figure with turban on his head— lives on a palm tree and genuflects before the Brahmin ghost, offering him his tobacco. The Sooty Spirit represents the labor class in the story as his backstory reveals his profession as a coolie in a mill in Champdani. His attitude towards the Brahmin is one of servility and docility. Shibu and the Sooty spirit are presently joined by a Yaksha, who kneels before Shibu as well, before however cautioning him to stay away from his wealth which was buried in the ground, and which he was carefully guarding. He boasts of having safely kept all his property documents on a stamp paper for three and a half score years. Later he reveals his identity to be a kāyasth, who, in life, had the Company’s civil and criminal court in his grasp. Being a kāyasth, the Yaksha ghost is shown to be boastful and money-minded. Even though he has the good sense of touching the Brahmin’s feet at first sight, he does not fail to warn him about stealing his property either. Towards the end of the story, it is revealed, by virtue of a hilarious twist in the tale, that both of these male ghosts had been Nrityakali’s husbands in previous births. When the Yaksha discovers that Nritya had lain with a Brahmin, thus breaking her kāyasth caste in previous birth, he shames her most brutally. Similarly Sooty Spirit too is appalled by his apparent cuckolding to a young Brahmin ghost.
In the final stanza, the narrator exits with a chuckle : “Ghosts don’t leave easily and they never let go of their dues. Men’s manhood, women’s womanhood, ghosts’ ghosthood and ghostess’ ghostesshood—they understand all this perfectly.”“Dues” here might mean the squabbles and disputes within all these marriages which get carried over in the afterlife and implode as all the spouses meet. However, they can also refer to the rules of caste and endogamy which do not end even in the afterlife. By keeping the familiar horror tropes and using them for humour , the author creates a social satire ridiculing the concept of monogamy or the tussle between desire and marriage.
Other notable mentions within this rich genre of horror comedies would be Troilokyanath Mukhopadhyay’sBhoot O Manush, Lullu, Parashuram’s “Mahesher Mahajatra”, “Ram Rajjya“, “Pathshala“, “Bhooter Chana” by Leela Majumder, Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay’s Goshaibaganer Bhoot (The Ghost of Gosain Bagan), Goynar Baksho andRashmonir Sonadana (that inspired the 2013 film Goynar Baksho) and Chayamoy.
What haunts haunted houses? Is it the scent of death, the allure of danger, the fear of (ghosts: bhoot) those who have passed or metonymically, the past (bhut) itself? Haunted houses hold history. Become a metaphor for the past, a disjunction in time-present, overstaying its welcome: An aberration sheerly by dint of its existence.
What is the fear of haunted spaces made of? Is our ascription of horror to abandoned things and spaces (broken toys, houses, barren lands, dysfunctional factories and buildings) a response to our own vulnerabilities and fear of abandonment? Our instinctual recoiling at the sight of these objects, a momentary coming face-to-face with the self and its many aporias? Does the idea of the supernormal become a metaphor for the past in these haunted sites, a reminder of the memories of yesteryears, our own ghosts, haunting us? Or is it our fear of attachment (“maya“) – holding on to things, places and former habits that we’re afraid to let go – the ghost metaphorizing our desire to stay, to haunt the places and people we loved?
“হানাবাড়ির ভূত একটা বিশেষ প্রিয় জায়গার মায়া কাটাতে পারে না। সেই বাড়ি হয়তো তার নিজের চেষ্টাতে তৈরি, হয়তো সেই বাড়িতে তাঁর শৈশব-যৌবন অবন্দে কেটেছে, অথবা সেইখানেই ছিল তাঁর দীর্ঘ কর্মজীবন, তাঁর আড্ডাপীঠ।”[xxiv]
(The ghosts of haunted houses find it impossible to let go of their special attachment to certain places. It could be the house they built with their own hands, the one they spent their childhood and teenage years growing up, or the house they found comfort in adulthood at the end of long working hours, the place of adda and camaraderie.) (Translation mine)
The haunted house as a literary construct and a space marked in reality converges the boundaries between fact and fiction. The lanes and bylanes of India abound in ruined palatial buildings, decrepit old havelis, broken bungalows and antiquated mansions and houses that are the seat of spectral stories and extramundane affairs. Kipling[xxv] catalogues the presence of a ghost in nearly “every other railway station”, one in Mussoorie, one in Dalhousie, two at Simla, aside from “the woman at Syreedak-Bungalow” (in)famous for blowing the bellows and a White Lady who guards a house at night in Lahore. The streets and stories of Bengal are home to many such unnatural places. Kartik Majumdar mentions a few of these infamous residencies from Bengal in his story “Bhuture Bari“: the Thakurbari (house of the Tagores’) at Jorasanko, Shantiniketan, haunted by theshadowy figure of Dwijendranath Tagore’s son Nitindranath, Hastings House in Alipore ritually visited by the carriage of Warren Hastings after he had passed, the sound of his footsteps still echoing up its wooden stairs, in search of lost dalils (documents) and photographs; A supernatural reenactment of his homecoming with Baroness Imhoff on their wedding anniversary. The old radio office in Gariston place at Dalhousie Square where the sight of the Saheb Bhoot froze singer Indubala and caused guitarist Amiya Adhikari to faint; the sounds of sobbing at a particular department in block no. 1 of Writer’s Building, sounds of the Judge Saheb’s gavel at midnight in High Court, and the ghost of the headless dancer Nistar, who roams its corridors looking for justice for her murder. The haunted house exists on the liminalities of myth and history, cheating time, keeping the past alive in its brick and mortar just as much as in its stories. As Tithi Bhattacharya (in her introduction to “Deadly Spaces: Ghosts, Histories and Colonial Anxieties in Nineteenth-Century Bengal[xxvi]”) reminds us through the words of Abanindranath Tagore in an excerpt from his autobiography ApanKatha (my own words/stories), the house exists on account of its residents.
As long as there are people in the house, who make the stream of the past present and future flow, the house continues to change its appearance, its history. It fills itself up with memories and the house-memories constitute the being of the house. All objects in the house get tied to ekal (the present, or the modern) through the sinews of memory. In this way ages pass, and then one day when people leave the house, the cobwebs of memory fly away in the wind; it is then that the house truly dies.[xxvii]
The house bereft of people remains rooted in the time of their leaving. When the people leave and traces of their lives are erased, the house fades into the past. The accumulated memories of the present compounds into memories, remnants (imprinted in abandoned spaces and discarded objects) haunting the afterlife of the house left behind. A house devoid of life is therefore haunted by the ghosts of the past, memories of lives once lived within its walls. In some ways, the haunted house steeped in memories of the past, shrouded in myth and mystery, is akin to a museum. The “Haldar Bari” in AnathBabur Bhoy (Anath Babu’s Fear) by Satyajit Ray, the “Mallik Bari” left behind by the zamindars when they moved to the city in Troilokyanath Mukhopadhyay’s Bhuter Bari, the house of Phanibhushan and the marble mansion in Rabindranath Tagore’s Manihara (1898) and Khudita Pashan (1895),the illusory zamindar house in Premendra Mitra’s Jongolbarir Bourani are some fictional haunted houses worth mentioning in this category.
A quasi-museum, the “Haldar Bari”, an infamous old haunted house in Raghunathpur, remains as a relic from feudal times. The ancestral house of the Haldar clan, now vanished with the end of the zamindari system, stands as a repository: a place to muse the modicums of past, vestiges of another time. Incongruous to its present, it roots firmly in history purloining tokens from a lost era. Propelled by a desire to view its interiors and especially the room on the northwest wing of the second floor (rumoured to be the seat of all hauntings) the narrator in Ray’s short story describes these interiors as comprising: a huge uthon (or portico), a nat-mandir (or performance hall attached to a temple), verandahs flanking three sides of the uthon, a broken palki (or carriage) on the verandah towards the right with the staircase leading to the second floor a few feet away. A lone grandfather clock lay by the verandah, devoid of glass and the minute hand, its pendulum resigned from timekeeping broken in two. A baithakkhana (parlour/assembly hall), aram kedara (recliner), a broken-winged tanapakha (punkah, a large fan suspended from pole and moved by pulling), a gun shelf, a gorgora (hookah) without its pipe were among others thus catalogued. The state of the house halted on the brink of the time of its abandonment is reminiscent of the line from Philip Larkin’s poem: “Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,/ Shaped to the comfort of the last to go/ As if to win them back”[xxviii]
Anathbabu describes the smell of this house, as a weird mix of the scent of Madraji dhoop (Madrasi incense), fish oil and the strong stench of burnt corpse – all things alien, discarded or undesirable in normative Bengali society. Yet, the references to incense, fish and flesh, particularly a corporeal injury – very much part and parcel of life as a human – also indicate a connection to the past, a reminder or memento of mortality, carrying over even in death. This smell, he identifies as a sign of the place being haunted. As night approaches, this smell grows stronger, overpowering him to sleep. The night is further marked prime for haunting on account of it being Amabasya or the night of the new moon. Around midnight, Anath Babu is jerked awake by the grandfather clock announcing the hour, as the house returns to its former glory – the recliner is back to its previous state of comfort with the addition of a pillow, the punkah with its wing unbroken is being pulled by unknown bearers. The former smell is now replaced with the fragrance of Amburi Tamak (tobacco) emanatingfrom an albola (hookah) poised beside. The trope of the past repeating in a haunted house or a museum come to life in parallel time, is unmissable. A witness to the past unfolding, Anathbabu is wrapped into the wings of history as the narrator shares a cup of tea with his spirit the next morning, before discovering his corpse frozen in fright, in the second floor room. The story closes on the ironic note that the ghosthunter meeting his end in the haunted house, is doomed forever to haunt it.
The Conway Castle in Conway Castle-er Pretatma (The Spirit of Conway Castle), the house in Brown Shaheber Baari (The House of John Middleton Brown), and the hunting lodge inDhumalgorer Hunting Lodge (The Hunting Lodge of Dhumalgarh) and the studio in Gagan Chaudhurir Studio (Gagan Chaudhuri’s Studio) are other well-known fictional haunted buildings from Ray’s oeuvre. Alternatively referred to as “পোড়োবাড়ি”/ ভুতুড়ে বাড়ি/ হানা বাড়ি” (burnt house/ghostly house/horror house) the haunted house stirs a strange mix of awe and curiosity in these stories. Satyajit Ray describes this as an “infectious” interest in AnathBabur Bhoy (The Fright of Anath Babu) while Kartik Majumdar, in Bhuture Bari, ponders about the unique charm and beauty of these houses that lures the protagonists in:
এত ভঙ্গ বঙ্গদেশে ভগ্নগৃহের তো অভাব নেই। খোদ কলকাতা শহরেই বহু ভাঙাচোরা বাড়ি আছে, যে-বাড়ির দিকে তাকালেই অনুমান করা যায় যে মানুষ ছাড়া আর সকলেরই সেটা আদর্শ বাসস্থান। পথের উপর দাঁড়িয়ে সেইসব পোড়োবাড়ির সৌন্দর্য খুঁটিয়ে-খুঁটিয়ে তৃপ্তির সঙ্গে নিরীক্ষণ করতে ভালো লাগে, কিন্তু তার অন্দরে পা ফেললেই অন্যরকম। সাহস বলে যে অহংটি আমাদের হৃদয়কন্দরে বসে অহরহ আস্ফালন করে, সে তখন হয় স্তব্ধ হয়ে যায়, নয়তো মুহূর্তে অন্তর্হিত হয়। এ ছাড়া সর্বাঙ্গ অকারণে ছমছম বা শিরদাঁড়া শিরশির করে ওঠে। উপরন্তু পশ্চাৎপদ হবার দুর্বার বাসনা জাগে। দিনদুপুরেই যদি এই দশা হয়, তবে প্রদোষে কিংবা ত্রিয়ামা রজনীতে কী হবে তা সহজেই অনুমেয়।[xxix]
(In divided Bengal, there is no dearth of fragmentary dwellings. In Kolkata itself there are many broken buildings, the sight of which confirms it as the ideal habitat for all but humans. Standing by the road one spectates with some satisfaction, the unique beauty of these ancient houses, but to step inside is another thing altogether. The part of the ego marked as courage is stumped or vanishes completely. A feeling of fear (“chomchom” or “shirshir”) like a shiver, courses down the spine. Our desire for flight intensifies. If this is the condition at daytime one can imagine the state we’d be in by evening or nightfall.) (Translation mine)
Why does our courage fail us while haunting these places even in broad daylight? Why are we seized with tremors and chills down our spine, prompted with the urgency to leave? What is this thrill that mingles with our fear of haunted spaces? Is it the possibility of courting death? Or, of not being on one’s own turf — a counter-space marked by its duality of being both inhospitable to humans and ideal for the rest. Indeed, the haunted site exists as an alternate space, antithetically within civilization, as a foil to it – its dilapidatedness and dysfunctionality, its opposition to electricity (in particular electric lights) and an affinity for dirt, darkness and danger posits it as the obverse, the flipside to the essentials for human habitation.
The only thing that makes it hospitable to humans is death itself (in the case of Anath Babu) or the possibility of living with loved ones eternally, of accepting them even after death – such as Nagen Babu, the only person who could go on living day in day out in the haunted house in Kartik Majumder ‘s story, did. Unlike the ghosts of Bengali pre-colonial myths and folklore, traditionally known for their love of the outdoors, preferring trees, bamboo forests, marshes and ponds as natural habitats, the ghosts of haunted houses live in a state of homebound opulence favouring the indoors to the wilderness in these stories. Tagore’s Monihara (1898), Khudita Pashan (1895) are the earliest successful short stories in this subgenre. “The uses of mammoth palaces, royal chambers and alienated locale in the stories underline the feudalistic outlook.”7 Tithi Bhattacharya in her essay, further underscores this as an ensuing result of Bengal’s colonial past; the influence of the modern gothic genre and the colonial ghosts and their preference for the indoors – a symptom of the modern bourgeois instinct brought in by the hauntings of colonialism The choice of palatial houses for these hauntings also prompt the possibility of it being a response to the end of aristocracy — the spectre of the zamindari system haunting their ruins just as much as the literary and cultural consciousness.
In Tagore’s Monihara, the story follows Phanibhushan and his wife Manimalika returning from Kolkata to live by themselves at their palatial village house. The house outlives them both as the schoolmaster begins his story, or the purported history of the house behind him which in its present state resembles “a huge house with broken windows, tumbledown verandahs and all the appearance of old age”. Yet at the time of Bhushan and Mani’s arrival to the estate, the house was resplendent with every luxury and comfort, overflowing with wealth and abundance: gardens and trees, ponds and open fields and servants. In Satyajit Ray’s film treatment of Monihara the house is intricately designed and dazzles with hoarded wealth: winding spiral staircases, long verandahs, heavy draperies and furnishings, wardrobes, drawers, chandeliers, tables with ceramic vases, statues, idols, lamps, portraits of Gods and Goddesses, dolls and miniature figurines, and other knick knacks and embellishments akin to the contents of his wife Mani’s jewellery box (goynar baksho).
Yet it is her love for jewels that lie at the core of the conflict in the narrative. Exhibited on every inch and corner of wall, ceiling and floor space the house stood like a gallery of beautiful objects – Mani arguably being just another artifact in the house’s long list of possessions. In the film, a part of this collection also consisted of a portrait of Phanibhushan’s aunt dressed in expensive fabric and ornaments – a symbol of wealth and beauty. At the sight of this portrait, in one of the earliest scenes from the movie, Manimalika comments: “Oto goyna porle amakeo orom dekhabe” (“Had I been wearing so many extravagant ornaments I would look just as beautiful”).[xxx] The next day, decked in her jewels standing in front of the portrait, Mani beams with pride.
The schoolmaster further narrates how being childless, Mani’s “woman’s nature became atrophied” as the love that was rightfully (according to the narrator) the share of her husband and child, transformed instead into an selfish and exclusive care for her ornaments, that superseded all else. Manimalika’s abandonment of her in-laws house and removal of her jewellery can perhaps be read as a rebuttal to being a marginalised piece of ornament in Phanibhushan’s lavish life. Her attachment to ornaments, one of relationality. Yet, the narrator reminds us that the absence of anger, violence and barbarity in the modern man and of the lack of acquiescence to traditions, domestic rituals and subservience in the wife, turns the wheel of fortune for Bhushan and Mani in this story.
God has so arranged it, that man, for the most trifling reason will burst forth in anger like a forest fire, and woman will burst into tears like a ram cloud for no reason at all. But the weather cycle seems to have changed, and this appears no longer to hold good.[xxxi]
Phanibhushan did not have a trace of barbarity deemed essential to the male ego, and Manimalika loved her beauty and adornments above all else. Their deviations seemed to have orchestrated the hauntings, sealing the fate of the modern man and turning the desires of the ambitious woman on a delicate anvil of beauty and beastiality. In both “Manihara” and “Jongolbaror Bourani” it is unrealised female desires that prompts the hauntings. Tithi Bhattacharya calls this “an exquisite delineation of unfulfillment both as a material condition and an ontological state”. Mani, unable to carry her jewels to safety, gives her life protecting them. In “Jongolbarir Bourani”, the Borobou secretly escaping her oppressive in laws with her valuables in tow is doomed to repeat the incident of her death, clutching her jewellery box as she drowned to death.
The striking parallel indicative of the position of the wife in the household, as no more than a ghost, speaks volumes about these marginalities in the nineteenth century fabric of domesticity. The zamindar-wife as a signifier of wealth and status escalates at once seamlessly and shockingly into the image of the phantom wife, her bones bedecked with bangles returning to claim her lost jewels.
He saw by the faint light of the crescent moon that there was a skeleton standing right in front of his chair. It had rings on each of its fingers, bracelets on its wrists and armlets on its arms, necklaces on its neck, and a golden tiara on its head —its whole body glittered and sparkled with gold and diamonds The ornaments hung loosely on the limbs but did not fall off.[xxxii]
The paraphernalia left behind by Mani – “saris laid out ready for use”, box of betel leaves, “china dolls of childhood days, scent bottles, decanters”, “pack of cards”, “large brightly polished shells”, “favourite lamp” and soapboxes – seemed to acquire new life, waiting for her return. “One who goes away leaving everything empty leaves an imprint of the living heart even on lifeless objects.” As Tithi Bhattacharya observes:
It is not merely the house, but the home, the bastion of modern safety, the heart of bourgeois selfhood that is rendered unstable here…She (Mani) turns the home, associative of life, into the dead space of the cremation ground. There is no longer any assurance that closed doors will keep the outside out, the dead will cross the threshold and contaminate the safety of the living.[xxxiii]
The blurring of the boundaries between the home and the hearth, crossing over of the outdoors and the indoors through the presence of ghosts disbalancing our sense of security is characteristic of these fictional haunted houses. Revisiting after death, Mani rekindles the memory of objects as of the imprint left behind in Phanibhushan’s heart. Haunting the house she abandoned while alive, for fear of being separated from her jewels, in death she returns hoping for more. Narrated as an ironic ending befitting the woman who instead of fulfilling the role cut out for her, disavows of her wifely duties and driven by greed and ambition elopes with her jewellery abandoning her husband in his hour of need, the acute horror of the dead wife coming back for more, is not just a manifestation of corporeal fears but perhaps also of the spectre haunting nineteenth century patriarchal notions – the idea of change. The possibility of a modern woman who flouts age-old customs and conventions by aspiring for more than just her husband and children. The ghost in the narrative as in the house could therefore be the spectre of the woman haunting patriarchy – a woman who desires for more, a wife who puts herself first and comes back from death dressed in her desires.
Objects and collectibles play a pivotal role in these stories. It was Mani and Jangalbarir Bourani’s attachment to material objects that led to their downfall and determined the location and motivation of their hauntings. Inert, inanimate objects coming to life, is another well known trope of the haunted house subgenre particularly in works such as “Fritz”, “Bhuto” and “Kutum Katum”by Satyajit Ray in each of which the narrative involves an inanimate object – a discarded childhood doll (as in “Fritz”), a dummy (in “Bhuto”) or a tree branch shaped like a dog (in “Katum Kutum”) – comes alive to haunt the house of the unassuming protagonists at night. In Syed Mustafa Siraj’s Murari Babu series, it is the titular character’s hobby of collecting antique furniture that lands him into paranormal problems.
The trope of haunting where the past repeats itself either through supernatural intervention (as in Manihara and Jangalbarir Bourani) or through the figure of the protagonist doomed to repeat past tragedies is popular in literature and culture as in the myth of Warren Hastings or in short stories such as Neel Atanko (Indigo Terror) by Satyajit Ray where the tragic suicide of the British manager of an Indigo Plant is reenacted through the figure of the protagonist who sought shelter in the old bungalow where the Britisher had taken his life when confronted by the peasants who were a victim to his oppression.
The list of haunted houses in literature, local lores or urban stories is endless as anthologies such as 100 Bhoot er 100 Bari (100 Ghosts and their 100 Haunted Houses) would attest. Bhattacharya identifies this as an uncanny horror which developed through colonial encounters. This kind of horror is more eerie and in a true sense encapsulates the Freudian notion of uncanny. As a subgenre this leads to a different trajectory of serious horror, different from the folklores or satirical forms such as horror comedy. The fear lodged in the confines of the home, haunting buildings like bodies, prone to supernatural infiltration like the human body was to diseases, is loaded with meaning. Festivals and rituals centered around lights, like the lighting of lamps under (supposedly) haunted trees (or trees susceptible to hauntings on account of being favourites among certain spectral beings, like the Bel, Sheora etc) and the corners of the house on Bhoot Choturdoshi formed a means to cope with these anxieties.
However the anxieties of death and corruption, in the mid-twentieth century soon spilled from the interiors of the home to various urban sites(as the urban legends would confirm): movie theatres, cars, railway compartments, hotels and other public buildings, etc. Ujaan Ghosh in “The City Possessed: Ghost Stories and the Urban History of Late Colonial Calcutta” identifies this as “a response to the changing infrastructural realities of mid twentieth-century Calcutta.”[xxxiv] Haunting beyond the boundaries of home, the ghost in Ghosh’s analysis is a motif to voice the large scale dehumanisation and displacement that was the price of urbanisation.
The day that is absolutely dedicated to ghosts and the supernatural in Bengal is Bhoot Choturdoshi, the eve of Kali Puja. As a kid, the stories exchanged on this day had to be absolutely no-nonsense horror, eerie and hair-raising — “ga chhomchhomey”. My (Titas’) grandmother, the pied-piper of every child in the neighbourhood, would “prepare” for a week for this day. After lighting 14 lamps around the house to ward off evil spirits, all of us kids would gather on her bed for a couple of hours of horror storytelling. She would switch off the lights, close the door tightly, and shush us down. The houses around the para would play along and keep their lights off; thus by the time evening fell, some tiny flickers of lamplights would be the only bright spots in the midst of the inky darkness. With much less private cars plying around, our neighbourhood was quieter in those days. The incessant rickshaw horns would also cease as rickshaw pullers went home for the festive season. The occasional cry of a hawk, or the caw of a perturbed crow would pierce the silence. My grandmother would modulate her voice, dropping it down to a whisper to create a suspenseful atmosphere. All of us would be huddled close to each other on the bed, feeling the hairs rise up on our arms, waiting, waiting, waiting…when suddenly the dogs started howling in a synchronised orchestra, scaring us completely out of our wits.
The best kind of horror stories for the night of Bhut Choturdoshi were Bibhutibhusan Bandyopadhyay’s (The most well known horror character created by Bibhutibhusan Bandyopadhyay is Taranath Tantric. However, since tantric practices have a historical life beyond the literary genre of horror or gothic, extending to occult arts and black magic, we have not dealt with this character for paucity of space in this blog piece). Best known for the most evocative and affective descriptions of rural and forest landscapes, Bandyopadhyay has a number of ghostly (bhoutik) and supernatural(aloukik) short stories strewn across several anthologies and magazines. In 2018, Book Farm brought out a collection of all thirty four of these stories Bhoy Samagra, aptly illustrated by Bimal Das and Narayan Debnath. Focussing meticulously on the almost tactile eeriness of haunted places and objects, Bandyopadhyay spins tale after tale exploring the synaesthesia of terror. His protagonists, mostly young or middle aged men, when lured or led into haunted spaces, have the most unnerving of experiences — the sights, sounds, and smells of these eerie locations have a way of creeping under the skin of the listener.
For example, in “Gangadharer Bipod”, the eponymous protagonist Gangadhar, a spice trader is lured into an illicit transaction of smuggling drugs by a mysterious man who leads him to a warehouse in the middle of a desolate field. As Gangadhar waited for him to emerge from the warehouse, he felt the hairs rise up on his arms and feet, as an unknown feeling of dread crept up all over him. It was partly in anticipation of the illicit trade-off, but chiefly because something about the place did not feel right to him at all. After waiting a long time, the man finally emerged out of the shadows to escort him inside the warehouse :
Gangadhar entered the warehouse like a clockwork toy. Strange! The inner wall of the warehouse was completely torn down! The whole place was shrouded in darkness. Other than two empty barrels on one side, there was nothing else inside the warehouse. There were cobwebs everywhere — hard to discern, but they got stuck on one’s face and nose. The air was filled with a dingy smell and the floor was damp — it seemed like this place had not felt human touch in a long long time.[xxxv]
The funny thing is that very few of his stories have an actual ghost character. The haunting is mostly created by the sights, sounds and smells of a scene, and the anticipation of dread that they bring, rather than the revulsion and nausea that follows a horrifying or disgusting experience. In a famous essay titled “On the Supernatural in Poetry” (1826), Ann Radcliff, the British gothic writer, made a distinction between the literary and psychological sentiments(rasa-s, if I may) of terror and horror : “Terror and Horror are so far opposite that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes and nearly annihilates them …. And where lies the differentce between horror and terror, but in the uncertainty and obscurity that accompany the first, respecting the dreading evil?”[xxxvi] Thus, terror is the feeling that is born through anticipation and dread, and not the blatantness of jump scares, which is what Bandyopadhyay’s stories achieve. For example, in “Medal”, a cursed medal of a dead British soldier torments the protagonist who finds it.[xxxvii] As long as he carries the medal, he is haunted by an invisible presence. Not only this, every time he climbs on a terrace or stands at the edge of a river, he feels an unsuppressable urge to jump. The suicidal thoughts continue till it actually brings him physical harm. Thus, the story is not so much about the curse of the medal as about the psychological plight it causes its undeserving owner.
This psychological plight often leads to a profound realisation or revelation for the protagonist. This could be a spiritual or an existential thought. In “Bomaiburur Jangoley”, this terror leads to the undertsanding that modernity has encroached and invaded the private spiritual recesses of forests. Set in the remote forests of Lobtulia — the same Lobtulia from his novel Aranyak — a team of forest officers and their associates were engaged in forest survey activities. Weird things started happening to the officers and their servants, causing some of them to go mad or develop several psychological problems. These things almost always involved a mysterious creature who sometimes revealed itself to be a dog, and sometimes a woman; the local legends referred to it as a “Djinn-pari”. A few months later, an old man and his twenty year old son came to rent a part of the forest, where they could graze their cattle. Within a couple of nights, the man started suspecting his son of bringing home a woman, since he had seen her leaving their hut at the dead of the night. The son, though, vehemently denied any such romantic possibility. In the end, the son’s dead body was discovered in the jungle, with his lifeless eyes and face expressing excruciating terror and panic. Reflecting on this devastating episode the narrator writes : “These places that are not inhabited by humans, are the haunts of several mysterious, formless spirits from different realms — they have been living here for a long time and hence are not pleased by the sudden appearance of human trespassers in their secret kingdom. They would jump at the slightest opportunity to take revenge.”[xxxviii] Speaking about this psychic dread towards worlds unknown and realms unearthly, Devendra P. Verma, a literary historian of gothic fiction, in The Gothic Flame (1923) expands upon Radcliff’s theory to further distinguish between the functions of terror and horror in literature : “Terror creates an intangible atmosphere of spiritual psychic dread, a certain superstitions shudder at the other world. Horror resorts to a ruder presentation of the macabre: by an exact portrayal of the physically horrible and revolving, against a far more terrible background of spiritual gloom and despair.”[xxxix] Evidently, Bandyopadhyay’s stories ascribe to the idea of terror, rather than horror.
Another writer who excelled at psychological terror was Satyajit Ray. Some of his most eerie tales deal with the theme of metamorphosis. In “Bhuto” a ventriloquist transforms into his puppet, in “Khagam” a man turns into a cobra he has killed, in “Neel Atonko” a man transforms into the ghost of a British official who had committed suicide. Many of these stories are oriented towards objects and collectibles and the lives and afterlives they acquire through several human associations over time. Such as in “Bhuto” which borders on voodooism or “Batik Babu”, where a hoarder of buttons, gloves and wallets discovers that each of these objects have a terrifying history of violent deaths. Others deal with a haunting of non-human beasts, specially those who have been subjected to violence or torture by humans. “Khagam” is one; another would be “Mister Shasmal-er Shesh Ratri” where every single animal, bird or insect that a man had killed in his life, come back to haunt him. Finally, he also explores the Frankesteinian horror genre in “Professor Hijibijibijbij” where, as Bhaskar Chattopadhyay describes, “a highly skilled and yet eccentric surgeon tries to create a real life version of one of his favourite fictional characters – one that is an amalgamation of the body parts of different animals, including the face of a human”.[xl] Ray’s horror stories thus deal with the fundamental question of being human, in a world where human dominance over other animals, insects, birds, the landscape and even inanimate objects cannot be taken for granted. It is a horror that is existential.
Bhut as an Articulation of Violence and Injustice
In the stories discussed above, bhut is a literal entity, an otherworldly undead presence terrorising people or haunting spaces. Sometimes this otherworldliness of bhoot-s (both ghosts and the past, or ghosts of the past) gets loaded with more layers of meaning. Violence, both on an individual and a community level, whether inflicted openly by political forces or in the privacy of one’s home, or by man-made climate emergencies, leaves a trace. This trace from the past is more than a memory; it manifests itself through this undead energy of the bhoot and like the repeated revisiting of a traumatic incident, comes back again and again to haunt everyone who had been affected by the moment of violence.
In Banaful’s short story “Giribala ”, the ghost embodies the terrible violence of Partition and the inconceivable destruction it brought with it.[xli] The reader is met with the howls of a child whose house is set on fire, whose father has been beaten to death and whose mother has been sexually assaulted in front of his eyes. This traumatic memory haunts Brihatlal, the protagonist, first as a memory of the little child’s screams, then as a vision — a hallucination— of rows of refugees with their mutilated bodies, blank eyes, and finally as a disembodied voice that emerges from a broken radio. This voice — of Giribala, presumably a woman that Brihatlal had himself tortured — narrates the story of the injustice meted out to her personally which becomes a mirror for the injustice shelled out towards the nation and those who believed in it and fought for it. The voice saturates the narrative articulating this history of pain and violence till the radio bursts open and a dismembered hand emerges from the rubble to behead Brihatlal. This is an act of vengeful righteous violence by the spectre.
This trope of a spectral voice articulating a history of violence and injustice is deployed in many ways in the horror literature of South Asia. Speaking about the “spectral speech” and dalit voice in C. Ayyappan’s stories, Udaya Kumar writes that for people whose narratives have fallen out of history, and who have been socially marginalised, tortured or killed, death serves both as an instigator as well as a medium of expression :
Ayyappan’s spectral narratives often adopt the first person, testamentary form, frequently and powerfully, invoking the autobiographical as the enabling instance of articulation for their Dalit characters. However, death in the formal sense of a conclusion to temporal unravelling is insufficient to enable the acquisition of posthumous powers of narration. It is a certain species of death – inauspicious and unmitigated – what in Malayalam is usually called durmaranam or bad death – that causes ghosts to be born. Accidents, murders, executions, lives cut off thus before they have run their course – such forms of durmaranam constitute the dead person as a victim, a prey to the unjust will of others or the brute and contingent force of the external world. In such instances, the forced exit from life is the act of injustice against which the spectre’s continued desire for speech and life struggles.[xlii]
This continued desire for speech is portrayed in a different way in Lila Majumdar’s “Sonali-Rupali”, where one wife spending hours and hours alone in a dilapidated house, imagines the voice of another lonely wife echoing through the walls, the cobwebs, the dusty furniture, the broken fragments of the dressing-table mirror. Because of their mutual dissatisfaction in their married lives, the spirit appears to her again and again, articulating the story of her abandonment and insatiated desires through the chimaera of lights and shadows cascading through the furniture.[xliii] It is unclear how much the spectre is an external presence and how much a materialisation of her own loneliness. In yet another story titled “Ahididir Bondhura” by Majumdar, a bunch of kids come to visit Ahididi as she tries to create a life out of her loneliness in a remote village where her husband decides to settle towards the fag end otheir life.[xliv] The kids are playful, stealing food and creating a mess in her kitchen. Soon Ahididi becomes friends with them in no time, telling them stories, and distributing treats to them everyday — the only out-of-place fact about this beautiful bond is that only one kid among them talks to her. The others, though friendly, never speak a word, which Ahididi misconstrues as shyness. Towards the end, she gets to know that their house belonged to a big trader some hundred years back. As he was having lunch, the milkman’s kids were creating a huge ruckus, he got mad and cut off the tongues of all these kids. Only one managed to escape. The spectre kids, once victims of an inhuman violence, thus seek solace and comfort in the motherly affection and kindness of Ahididi. Here, their literal voicelessness transforms into soundless articulation as they relive their lost childhood through Ahididi’s love. This re-living itself is a dissent against the trader’s effort to suppress them and render them voiceless.
What is a ghost? A memory, an illusion, a mistake of the mind? The past making itself felt through the threads of time, pushing into the present? Or the one excluded to the margins of society, haunting the peripheries of public life?
Often, a turning upside down of the social order of things in the afterlife, the ghost story parallels or brings out the discord and chaos of social interactions in life or human society through the parable of the non-human one. Yet “one is perhaps more likely to encounter an actual ghost before they can encounter serious scholarship on ghost stories”, evoking the words of Srdjan Smajic, Ujaan Ghosh observes. Yet the horror form encapsulates history and culture, as we have attempted to expound in this entry, and thus becomes important sites for historicist and cultural interrogation. Treated as an afterthought, the position of the genre of ghost stories lies second “even (to) children’s literature”, Ghosh writes.
The comparison with children’s literature is important, not just because children were often targeted as the primary audience for these stories (although they could be equally popular among adults), nor for their mutual invisibilization and infantilization in the hierarchy of literary genres and academic investment, but also because ‘ghosts’ often served as entry points in these stories to conversations around (or introduction to) difficult topics such as death, decay, loss and displacement with children through storytelling. This we hope has been evident from the horror narratives and memories of childhood ghost stories we have published as part of this short series. The underlying politics at play in most of our published entries, the information shared and the response produced in how it affects them also become potential strands of inquiry for an understanding of the relationship between children and fiction (particularly, horror) and the role of this genre in their lives. In keeping with this, horror stories extending beyond the realms of childhood, serve as a response or reflection of the lives of the adults around them, often the dominant producers of these narratives. Fear as a tool for instructing/disciplining in these stories, curiosity for the unknown and imagination for the unseen could be seen as other possibilities of the genre in its association with childhoods.
Finally, an analysis such as this, prompts the question: what are the ghosts in children’s lives? Can ghost, as identified by the child (reader/listener/victim) be a label for that which is incomprehensible or too traumatic to be described in terms of reality, in the words of the kid? In an episode from the popular English series The Haunting of Hill House, a child victim of abuse in the story (the scene of the crime typically being in the dark) equates the violence at the hand of her stepdad as a haunting or ghost in the basement (since bad things happened there). A terror that belies speech, grips the words at her throat. Can the ghost then become a way of processing the memories of abuse and a medium to express childhood traumas? Unspoken terrors. Nameless Fears.
[i] Rajarshi Bhattacharya, “Spirits and Possessions”, in Horror Fiction in the Global South (New Delhi: Bloomsbury India, 2021), Chap. 4, Kindle.
[ii] William Crooke, “Worship of the Malevolent Dead”, in The Popular Religion and Folklore of Northern India Vol.1, (Westminister: Archibald Constable and Co., 1896), The Project Gutenberg EBook, Chap. 5.
[iv] Dey, “The Village Ghost”, 107.
[v] Projitkumar Mukhopadhyay, “Mahamarir Bhut”, Anandabajar Patrika Online, June 13, 2012, https://www.anandabazar.com/rabibashoriyo/ghosts-of-pandemic/cid/1286684
[vi] Dey, “The Village Ghost”, 108.
[viii] Dakshinaranjan Mitra Majumdar, Thakurmar Jhuli (Calcutta: Mitra and Ghosh, 1907).
[ix] Richard F. Burton, Vikram and the Vampire (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1870), 47, The Project Gutenberg Ebook.
[x] Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar, Betal Panchabingshati (Calcutta: The Sanskrit Press, 1868), Wikipedia Ebook.
[xi] Anurima Chanda, “Funny Ghosts, Friendly Ghosts: A Study of How Indian English Pre-Teen Horror Fiction Turns Fear on its Head”,Horror Fiction in the Global South – Cultures, Narratives and Representations (New Delhi: Bloomsbury India, 2021), Chap.13, Kindle.
[xii] Noël Carroll, The Philosophy of Horror: Or, Paradoxes of the Heart – 1st Edition (New York: Routledge, 1990) n.d. Accessed September 2, 2022. https://www.routledge.com/The-Philosophy-of-Horror-Or-Paradoxes-of-the-Heart/Carroll/p/book/9780415902168.
[xiii] Noël Carroll, “Horror and Humour”, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 57, No. 2, Aesthetics and Popular Culture (Blackwell, 1999), pp. 145-160. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/275848597_Horror_and_Humor
[xiv] Anurima Chanda, “Funny Ghosts, Friendly Ghosts: A Study of How Indian English Pre-Teen Horror Fiction Turns Fear on its Head”, Bloomsbury Collections – Horror Fiction in the Global South – Cultures, Narratives and Representations (New Delhi: Bloomsbury India, 2021), Chap.13, Kindle.
[xvi] Sourav Kumar, “Decolonising the Eerie: Satyajit’s Bhooter Raja (the King of Ghosts) in Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1969).” PostScriptum: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Literary Studies 2 (i), 2017: 41–50, https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.1318841.
[xvii] Amrapali Saha, “Feeding the Spirits: Ghosts & Food in Bengali Literature” (Goya: October 29, 2018), https://www.goya.in/blog/feeding-the-spirits-food-and-ghosts-in-bengali-literature
[xviii] Ian Almond,. “The Ghost Story in Mexican, Turkish and Bengali Fiction Bhut, Fantasma, Hayalet.”, The Comparatist, Vol. 41, 2017, 213-235, accessed September 2, 2022. https://ghost.ims.forth.gr/bibliography/almond-ian-the-ghost-story-in-mexican-turkish-and-bengali-fiction-bhut-fantasma-hayalet-the-comparatist-vol-41-2017-213-235-2/.
[xix] Judith Armstrong, “Ghost stories: Exploiting the convention”, Child Literature in Education 11, 1980, 117–123.
[xx]ADMIN, “100, Garpar Road: A Walk down Memory Lane”, Hummingbird’s Trail (blog), August 25, 2019, https://www.hummingbirdstrail.com/2019/08/25/100-garpar-road-a-walk-down-memory-lane/.
[xxi] Avery F. Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, (London: University of Minnesota Press 2008), Accessed September 2, 2022, https://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/ghostly-matters.
[xxiii] Rajsekhar Basu, “Bhusundir Mathe”, in Day’s End and Other Bangla Stories, Translated by Suman Ghosh (Kolkata: Srishti Publishers, 2003), 318.
[xxvi] Tithi Bhattacharya, “Deadly Spaces”, in Postcolonial Ghosts =: Fantômes Post-Coloniaux. Les Carnets Du Cerpac, Edited by Joseph-Vilain, Mélanie, Judith Misrahi-Barak, Gerry Turcotte, and Université Paul Valéry, eds, no 8 (Montpellier: Presses universitaires de la Méditerranée.
[xxvii] Abanindranath Tagore, Abanindra Rachanabali Vol. 1, n.d, archive.org Ebook, Accessed September 2, 2022. http://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.301634.
[xxix] Kartik Majumdar, “Bhuture Bari”, 7.
[xxxiii] Tithi Bhattacharya, “Deadly Spaces”, in Postcolonial Ghosts =: Fantômes Post-Coloniaux. Les Carnets Du Cerpac, Edited by Joseph-Vilain, Mélanie, Judith Misrahi-Barak, Gerry Turcotte, and Université Paul Valéry, eds, no 8 (Montpellier: Presses universitaires de la Méditerranée.
[xxxiv] Ujaan Ghosh. “The City Possessed: Ghost Stories and the Urban History of Late Colonial Calcutta.” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies 0, no. 0 (August 17, 2022): 1–18. https://doi.org/10.1080/00856401.2022.2090738.
[xxxv] Bibhutibhusan Bandyopadhyay, “Gangadharer Bipod”, in Bhoy Samagra (Kolkata: Book Farm, 2018), Kindle Books.
[xxxvi] Ann Radcliffe, “On the Supernatural in Poetry”, New Monthly Magazine, Vol.16., no.1, (1826): 150, http://seas3.elte.hu/coursematerial/RuttkayVeronika/radcliffe_sup.pdf
[xxxvii] Bibhutibhusan Bandyopadhyay, “Medal”, in Bhoy Samagra (Kolkata: Book Farm, 2018), Kindle Books.
[xxxviii] Bibhutibhusan Bandyopadhyay, “Bomaiburur Jangoley”, in Bhoy Samagra (Kolkata: Book Farm, 2018), Kindle Books.
[xxxix] Devendra P. Verma, The Gothic Flame: Being a History of the Gothic Novel in England (London: Arthur Barker, 1923), 143.
[xl] Bhaskar Chattopadhyay, “Why We Should Remember Satyajit Ray (also) for the Horror Stories he Wrote”, Scroll, Mar 26, 2017, https://scroll.in/article/832815/why-we-should-remember-satyajit-ray-also-for-the-horror-stories-he-wrote
[xlii] Udaya Kumar, “The Strange Homeliness of the Night: Spectral Speech and the Dalit Present in C. Ayyappan’s Writings”, Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences, vol. XVII, 177.
A lover of languages and lemon tarts, Titas can be found speaking elfin tongues or spinning globes with the little ones around her. Cat person and resident paleonto-phile, she is the go-to confidante and savior for juniors from Presidency University, Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) from where she pursued her BA, MA and Mphil respectively. Currently pursuing her PhD at the University of Chicago, her research looks into the comparative aspects of twentieth century Indian children’s literature in Marathi, Bangla and Hindi. Her love for children has carried her through the corridors of Cambridge School, Sriniwaspuri where she taught English to middle graders and to Birbhum where she helped organise workshops for children supported by Sayambharataa. When not mapping mischief or thinking about dinosaurs, she can be found drinking copious amounts of black coffee and fiddling with her nose-pin, deep in thought.
An ardent lover of all things fictional, Ahona loves to disappear in the world of ink and paint. Hailing from Kolkata she pursued her undergraduate and postgraduate studies from Presidency and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) respectively. Post-graduating in the pandemic, her favourite memories from her gap-year include sharing children’s literature with children as a middle-grade teacher at St. Mary’s School, Safdarjung. Spurred on by her childhood habit of talking too much, she built Project Chatterbox with CCYSC, an initiative to map the underrepresented voices of children. She loves how kids delight in little things and the hope nascent in children’s literature. She is fond, in no particular order, of cats, winter, piano playlists, dance workouts and apple pies. Her biggest regret is failing to learn the hula hoop from her niece. She is currently pursuing her PhD from SALC, UChicago.